Andrew Miller: Hello and welcome to the Cricinfo Round Table.
Today we are going to talk about the state of English cricket, and in particular the state of the England cricket team. It's been just three years since they were riding the crest of a wave, winning the Ashes at the end of a run of six consecutive series victories. Since then it has all been a little downhill. England are now in New Zealand and will be looking to avoid their third straight series defeat in a row. With me today to discuss where England are at are Michael Atherton and David Lloyd.
Let's start with you, Michael. Where do you think England are at this point?
Michael Atherton: I think they are about a mid-ranking side in the one-day game. There is a lot of uncertainty about England's one-day team. There are a lot of areas that they are yet to sort out: Who is going to be their spinner? Have they got a spinner in one-day cricket? Can they find an opening combination that can take the game to the opposition and exploit the Powerplay overs? They have got a lot of questions to ask in one-day cricket.
I think the Test side is more settled but the performances have been a little up and down. The prime concern for me is the fast-bowling resources. At the heart of England's great rise to the triumph in the Ashes in 2005 was the quartet of top-class fast bowling - they bowled somewhere between 85-90 mph, swinging the new ball, in Matthew Hoggard's case, or reverse-swinging it. At the moment I think there is an absolute absence of pace and quality in the fast-bowling resources. Basically, good Test match teams have good fast bowlers.
The batting looks solid, and in terms of personnel they all average over 40. But they are not necessarily putting the returns on the board. Some of those players, if they look carefully at their performances over the last 12-18 months, will see a trend that is upwards rather than downwards. I think there are some questions to answer, as well, in the Test team, but that looks more settled than the one-day team.
David Lloyd: I wouldn't be that worried about the Test team. I know that we have been on a downward spin since 2005 and I know that we are fifth in the ICC rankings as of now. It always is a concern to produce fast bowlers and I don't think we are in too bad a state when we look at the bowlers who are coming through. We can look back at Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood, who came through under Duncan Fletcher, and say that they came through a bit early, but there's great potential in those two. There's a lad called Graham Onions up at Durham who is doing pretty well in county cricket and may get his chance. There is Steven Finn who is only 19 years old but is 6'8, and he's down at Middlesex. So I think this is an emerging team at Test level. Michael Vaughan has said that he is excited by the prospects of this team. I refuse to believe that the top six will continue underachieving. I think they are the best players by a distance in county cricket in the batting department. Tim Ambrose has come into the side; he started well in New Zealand but had a bit off an iffy time behind the stumps in the second Test. But he looks more than an adequate batsman, if not better than that. So the Test team should settle down.
But I think as a one-day team we are miles away in knowhow, in confidence, in mobility - we just seem to be second best in all these things against the opposition, and that is reflected in our rankings. We're seventh I think, just above Bangladesh and West Indies, so we are pretty ordinary in that.
AM: Let's pick up that bowling point you mentioned. Obviously the Test at Hamilton was a bit of a watershed for England; they lost very embarrassingly, by 189 runs. They then got rid of two of their senior bowlers, Hoggard and Steve Harmison. From what we have seen at Wellington, do you think this is the start of a new era as Vaughan was suggesting?
MA: I don't think it's the end of Hoggard. I would be surprised if he didn't play for England again. At 31, perhaps you can argue that he has reached the plateau on the other side. But I think that he has got a lot to offer, in particular in terms of attitude. I think you will see Hoggard trying to fight his way back into the side. It only takes an injury to a fast bowler and Hoggard comes back in, and if he does well he can still play for a year or two.
Harmison is more problematic because his problems have been long-term - we have seen them over two to three years. I wouldn't be carried away with what we have seen in Wellington. I think the bowlers have bowled well: James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom in particular. But they have had a helpful deck in Wellington, and looking at the type of bowlers that they are, I think they need a bit of help from the deck. I think when we get on a flatter pitch, England will find it harder. So I wouldn't go overboard just yet, but I think there are some promising signs.
|The prime concern for me, is the fast-bowling resources. At the heart of England's great rise to the triumph in the Ashes in 2005 was the quartet of top-class fast bowling. At the moment I think there is an absolute absence of pace and quality in the fast-bowling resources. Basically, good Test-match teams have good fast bowlers
Broad looks like a promising cricketer to me and I think that the England selectors have got to show faith in him. I think there is a lot of improvement to come from him, and hopefully a bit more pace. But I like what I see in terms of his bowling and his attitude. He obviously can hold a bat as well, which has helped because England have been looking for that No. 8 position from a bowler for some time, so he is definitely one that should be pencilled in for the medium term.
DL: I'm not writing either Hoggard or Harmison off. The penny will drop with the players and the management that they need better preparation. Sir Richard Hadlee has said that before a Test he needed 130 overs, precisely, under his belt to get into a good rhythm, to get his muscles working and to get his direction right. They penny hasn't dropped with some of our boys that you cannot just rock up to a Test and run out and bowl. It just doesn't happen that way. I would expect both Hoggard and Harmison to roll their sleeves up in the English domestic season and play for their counties and bowl a lot of overs; get some rhythm and confidence and try and fight for a place again.
I am quite excited about what we have now. The other thing is that these young bowlers will only get experience by bowling in Tests. They talk about Monty Panesar: he can't do this, he can't do that. Leave him alone - he's played only 24 Tests and he has a damn good record and he will work things out for himself.
I am still very optimistic about the Test team. And I hope the two lads who have been dropped, Hoggard and Harmison, who have about 460 Test wickets between them, say, "Okay, we are going to get our place back in the side."
AM: Do you think that we are seeing a bit of a flip side to the central contracts issue? I know you were a big fan of them, Michael, when they came in, because they provided a bit of stability, something that you both didn't have in the 1990s, at the end of that decade. Looking at the batting, we have the top six who all do just enough but don't go on; the bowlers aren't quite match fit. Is there some stagnation caused by having people in the squad who aren't playing regularly?
MA: Well, there is no doubt that the central contracts were a good and positive thing for English cricket. Throughout the 1990s most of the other teams were fully professional in that sense and had overtaken England and so we did need the central contracts. But you need to strike a balance between security and creating a nice team atmosphere and team ethos by keeping players hungry. I think hunger is a vital part of good team dynamics. Firstly, you need a number of players pushing from behind, and secondly, you don't want the players in the team to think that they are untouchable. Whether they have got that balance right, between stability, security and hunger, I'm not quite sure. But there is no doubt that central contracts are a good thing and should be extended.
DL: I have got a theory about central contracts: I think there should be more players, more than 12. My theory is that the players who are in the 12 are playing with the fear of going out of it because their earnings will plummet if they come out of the central contracts situation. So I don't think the ECB are quite there in the management of the central contracts. I think there should be a basic fee, but the top-up should only be if you play - it should be more incentive-driven. I think it would ease the situation because I think that the top six batsmen [in the Test side] are in fear of losing their place.
AM: Both of you were involved with English cricket during a time when there was not much success in terms of results. England have now lost a couple of series. They have been woeful away from home. Can you see a comparison or is it impossible to compare between eras?
MA: I don't like comparing between eras because I can't quite see the point of it. In terms of where England are now, I think we are quite somewhere short of being the best in the world. Equally, we are not at the bottom of the pile. I believe that we are in the mid-ranking position where two, three or four teams can all beat each other on a given day. England are striving to be better than that. Fundamentally, I believe, and I have always believed, in order for that to happen there have to be some fundamental changes in the way that cricket is structured in England. That is an age-old argument, something that we have been banging on for far too long about and I am not too sure that Cricinfo readers want to be bored by either.(laughs)
I do believe that the fundamentals are not quite right. But we are still producing decent cricketers and when things click, when you get a captain and coach combination like Fletcher and Vaughan, when you get fast bowlers who stay fit and operate together like they did in 2005, then England have got the chance of beating the best. But I don't see that as being consistently possible with the way that English cricket is going.
AM: David, do you think the expectations from England are higher these days, especially given what they achieved not so long ago?
DL: Yes. They captured the public imagination in 2005 but since then they have been downhill. I think this team we have got is going the right way. I know some of the results have been very frustrating, and I thought they were very poor in Sri Lanka. I was there all the time and they didn't play with much knowhow. But looking at the personnel, I think they are going the right way.
We'll always have peaks and troughs. I probably agree with Michael that the structure that we have in England is not going to be consistent in producing international cricketers and that's not helping with what is happening in world cricket right now - the ECB will need to be really strong, and clear thinking will be required about how our cricket is going to go in the next decade or so. But again, that's probably for another programme and another issue to see where the ECB will take English cricket.
There's an email just going around that there is apparently going to be more Twenty20 cricket. What's telling is that the counties are just looking at their own revenue rather than the bigger picture of what is best for the international England cricket team.
AM: Let's just pick up on a point you raised there Michael, about the captain-coach dynamics. You mentioned how good it was between Fletcher and Vaughan. We are coming into the Peter Moores era. What do you make of his reign so far?
MA: Well, in terms of pure results it has been in and out. I wouldn't say we have seen a consistent improvement, but equally, there have been signs that he is doing some good things. I find it very difficult to get a real handle on what Moores is about. He says all the right things at press conferences and he is a very personable, approachable chap but I haven't really yet got a grip on what he is bringing to the England team. Is he in an over-arching management position and bringing specialists in, like Ottis Gibson and Andy Flower, or is he just creating a good environment for the players to flourish, or is Vaughan really the main voice during Tests?
I think it is still difficult to say, and I'd like to over the next year, certainly as he grows into the role, get a grip on what Moores is bringing. But it has almost been a fuzzy start. You cannot really criticise because England haven't been that bad but equally there has been nothing obvious so that you could say, "Well, this is what the coach is bringing to the set-up". So I think he is under pressure. The next few Tests - this series in New Zealand, the home series against New Zealand - are perfect opportunities for him to get some results on the board, but if England don't produce results, there will be one or two questions asked.
|I think as a one-day team we are miles away in knowhow, in confidence, in mobility. We just seem to be second best in all these things against the opposition and that is reflected in our rankings. We're seventh I think, just above Bangladesh and West Indies - so we are pretty ordinary in that
DL: He [Moores] talks all the time about "We are building the team." There is always this mystique about coaches. You would look at Fletcher and he would always say "I am building the team". John Bracewell, New Zealand's coach, always says "I will be saying this about the team and selecting the team". I think Moores, as Michael says, creates an environment for the players to play. He un-clutters things. He wants players to take ownership about what they are doing and not to rely on lots of other people. He brings specialist coaches in and I think he has got two excellent specialists, the bowling coach, Gibson, and Flower, the assistant coach. Moores creates the atmosphere for players to play. The captain leads the team, he leads his players, and certainly in my time we would be looking at the captain and ask, "What are we going to do, skipper?" rather than look at the coach. But in the recent era I would suggest that there would be a look at Fletcher; definitely in New Zealand, it's a look at Bracewell. I think Moores is a step away from that. I think he is very impressive. I like Moores, but he definitely needs some results.
AM: Okay, let's look a little more closely at the captain now, because with English cricket in the last 20 years there's been a fairly consistent cycle of four-five years of captaincy - you [Atherton] were five, Graham Gooch was four, Nasser Hussain was about four, and obviously Vaughan has had his injuries and was out for a while, but he is coming up for five years in the job. So is that possibly the end of his span?
MA: I wouldn't say so.
I've always felt that there is a limited shelf life for a captain, particularly in English cricket because it is a difficult job in the sense that usually the results are not always going your way. Secondly, the peculiar nature of the English media puts a lot of pressure on the team and the captain. There are 15 national newspapers, so there is always stuff going on and around. It's not an easy job.
What Vaughan has got going for him is a great deal of credibility because he is an Ashes-winning captain. He is also a wonderful player when he is playing at his best, and I still think he is a good player now. He is not as young as he was and he has had one or two injuries, but I think we saw last summer that when he gets a run in the team his batting can still be as fluent and as good as ever. He is an Ashes-winning captain - there aren't too many of those around in English cricket and I think that gives him a tremendous amount of credit in the bank, if you like, to take him through one or two tough times. I think it is perfectly fine at the moment. I don't have a problem with the split captains. I have for long been a believer that you should have your best captain for each form of the game and so I am perfectly happy with the Paul Collingwood-Vaughan situation right now. I don't see why that cannot continue for a while.
DL: There's just a natural wastage, isn't there, with captains? A shelf life, or call it what you like, but age creeps up and then you have injuries. Michael will know about captaining the side with injuries. Vaughan has been out with injuries. He has said that he wants to go on for about two or three years and I think he is a very impressive man. He is a very honest man, he is a good character and he is excited about the team that he has got. The team at Wellington, he says, has got energy and he wants to take it forward along with Moores.
If you look at this team in Wellington, you could say that if they kept these players together, they will all be in the swim of things for the next Ashes series. They are all young enough. Vaughan is the oldest player. He has got a decent set of chaps with him, he has got ambition to captain England further, and that counts. It just remains to be seen how long his knee, which is a bit troublesome, holds up for.
AM: How difficult is it to rebuild a side from scratch? I mean Vaughan had this wonderful side, the Ashes side, and you thought he was going to take them to who knows what heights, and then suddenly he himself is cut down and the team itself falls to pieces. It must be a tough job to try and rebuild from scratch like that.
MA: Yes, it is a question I've put to him at the eve of this series in another interview. Rebuilding a team is not as easy as when you are a football manager, because a football manager can just buy a centre forward for $30 million. Alex Fergusson has built four different teams for Manchester United that have gone on to win big trophies, and that is an impressive achievement. But he does have the advantage of not having to just pick players who are born in Manchester or who have played in Manchester. He can go out and buy a team. Now obviously a cricket captain or coach cannot do that.
But in a sense that makes it more of a challenge and more interesting. I think the key thing for Vaughan is the desire. You do empathise with players of a certain group and Vaughan will have a very special bond with the team that won the Ashes in 2005, with the likes of [Marcus] Trescothick and [Andrew] Flintoff who are no longer here. One: does he have the desire and drive to do that again, and two: as an elder statesman with a slightly different relationship with some of these young players, can he find the same empathy with this lot that he found with the 2005 lot? I don't think anybody can answer those questions. They are questions to be answered by him over the next year or two.
DL: Well, there's that F-factor isn't there? We've gone through an interview and we haven't really mentioned Flintoff, and what an integral part of England's team he was in 2005. Can he come back? If he comes back midsummer and he is able to bowl at 90 mph, I think England have the makings of an excellent team and Vaughan will be looking at that. We've talked about Vaughan's injuries, but there is a big question mark about Flintoff.
AM: And if he doesn't make a comeback, then what can England do to try and move on, because all through the 1980s into the 1990s, we had Ian Botham hanging over the side. Is Flintoff going to hang over the team for ever more?
MA: Well, not to the same extent as Botham, I don't think. If you put the records of the two cricketers side by side, there really is no comparison. Flintoff hit form at exactly the right time, but if you look at his record in total, it doesn't bear comparison with Botham's.
English cricket, if Flintoff is not around and is not fit, will just have to move on. There is no way around it. You either have a capable allrounder or you haven't, and if you haven't then you've got to do the best with what you have got. Ideally you want a world-class allrounder because that helps tremendously with the balance of the side. I think those close to Flintoff still believe that he can get back and play for England for a number of years. His physiotherapist was out here during the break between the one-day series and the Test series and he was sounding fairly optimistic about all this. I have my doubts whether he can be the bowler he was, given both the age and the injuries that he has had. But I think desire is a key part of Flintoff as well. If he comes back, well and good. If he doesn't, then we will have to move on.
AM: We must start to wrap it up now but just one more point I would like to pick up. Vaughan has been mentioning all through the series about England's low confidence in the batting. Michael, you managed to bring a side through that never really had a lot of confidence. What is it that you need to score those centuries that have been missing for England all through this winter really?
MA: Well, I think you can get too wrapped up in hundreds. It is becoming an issue and the more that you bang on about an issue and the more you think about it, the more of a problem it can become sometimes. You will go through games and patches where players don't get hundreds. In this particular game in Wellington, although we had one, it wasn't from a batsman - Tim Ambrose got it. But it was the kind of pitch where a batsman might never quite feel in, even if you have got 50 or 60. And the kind of pitch where wickets fell in clusters. So I wouldn't get too hung up on the hundreds issue.
| You need to strike a balance between security and creating a nice team atmosphere and team ethos by keeping players hungry. I think hunger is a vital part of good team dynamics
I was disappointed with the way England batted in the second innings. At lunch-time they were 250 runs ahead with nine wickets in hand. A confident side would have really rammed home the advantage, but England batted tentatively. I think that was as a result of the performances and the results that the side has had over the last 12 to 18 months. Somehow they have got to get that confidence back because good teams are dominant teams and they keep poking the opposition in the chest and asking questions of them. England at the moment are just a bit too timid.
DL: I think Kevin Pietersen is going to take somebody to the cleaners. He has been quiet for a little while now. I think there has been this fear in the top six, and there is also something else to consider - the top six may feel that Nos.7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 are not trustworthy. They do not get many runs and that might play on them.
I mentioned the word "fear". I think they can play with a lot more arrogance than they do. I was there throughout the series in Sri Lanka and I think sometimes their game plans are completely off the spout - just to sit in and go at about one-and-a-half to two runs per over; whereas a few years ago, we were talking about the Australian style of three-and-a-half to four runs per over.
I will be very optimistic and think that the batsmen are going to come really good. Ian Bell, we've talked about him - he's a lovely, stylish player. He's about to explode. I think there are a lot of runs that are going to come from Bell and Pietersen. The ego, the arrogance, will take somebody to the cleaners. They are trying to get [Andrew] Strauss back in to the team. He is treading carefully - he is a class player but he will need to score runs. I'm so optimistic. I think they will be fine. I think [Alastair] Cook is a bloody good player. I'm a born optimist and I think they are going to come good.
AM: Well, there we have it. England are in the doldrums at the moment but the future isn't all doom and gloom according to our experts. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for joining me on the Cricinfo Round Table.
|Comments have now been closed for this article